by Liberty Finch
Walking into Deb LeAir’s handmade tile exhibit at the Infinity Gallery at Clay Squared is like setting off for an adventure into a fabled woodland. In fact, the first piece you see at the gallery’s entrance is entitled “Fairy Woodland.” But unlike the gothic demise met by Hansel and Gretal or Little Red Riding Hood, this trip through the clay forest is filled with happy, dappled hues and hand-carved, textured imagery that leaves you feeling light and hopeful.
Spring has arrived in Minnesota and, although the outdoor landscape remains
dirty and brown, it’s pregnant with the promise of new life. But if you
can’t wait for next month’s crocuses to bud, or if you missed the
annual flower extravaganza atop Marshall Field’s eighth floor, head over
to Northeast Minneapolis and view this delightful display by artist Deb LeAir.
(Even her name sounds springy!)
produces hand-carved tiles in many shapes and sizes and this exhibit showcases
these, as well as three-dimensional vessels and large, two-dimensional wall
pieces. Everything about her work is organic and made from scratch. The process
is labor intensive, the design meticulous. Working from earthenware and stoneware,
LeAir rolls out the clay and lets it dry for 12 hours until its consistency
is leather hard. She uses no molds—each piece is hand-drawn and carved—and
all the rough spots are sanded clean before glazing.
The terra sigilatta glazes she applies first are hand mixed and offer a warm
matte finish. LeAir used to work more with primary colors, but these days her
homemade palate includes earthy greens, oranges, purples and browns that are
so rich you’d swear you were smelling the soil or catching a whiff of
a salty ocean breeze.
After the first firing, a second, black glaze is applied, wiped clean and the
pieces are fired again. The result is a thick, glossy outline of her designs,
which are predominantly of natural imagery.
LeAir says her design inspiration comes from living alone in the isolated Wisconsin
woods for eight years. True to form, LeAir hand built, by herself, a modest
dwelling in 1984 where she lived without water or electricity. She kept a studio
about three miles away in a nearby town, but said her experience in the forest
forever changed her life, allowing her to develop a deep, personal relationship
with the natural world.
Viewing her work is like strolling through an arboretum. Trees, leaves, water
and flowers are abundant. Paths swirl through dense wooded patches, embellished
with feathers and spirals. The three-paneled Zen wall triptych “Sacred
Space” invites us to linger a moment and allows us to feel centered and
calm amidst natural beauty.
In addition to her Thoreau-like experience in the Wisconsin woods, LeAir also
spent time in Hawaii, and tropical influences are also featured in this show.
Bamboo, waves and Maui boats adorn another triptych, “Honolulu Dreams.”
LeAir says she enjoys working on large-scale wall pieces and plans to do more.
She is also exploring design that is less image based. “I moved to the
Twin Cities several years ago,” says LeAir, who still visits her woodland
paradise regularly and receives inspiration from it. “What I feel about
that place and what I think about it now is more abstract.” ||
Deb LeAir’s Solo Show runs through April 24 at Clay Squared to
Infinity, in the Grainbelt Brewery Keg House, 34 Thirteenth Ave. NE, Mpls. 612-781-6409.
Gallery hours are Mon.–Sat. 11 a.m.–5 p.m. & Sun. noon–4